The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar
“The air in my house tastes like sugar and the floors are sticky,” said Amnandi Khumalo.
“Unina, you say I should be honest!” She wanted to cry, for she was lonely, yet she refused to allow a single tear to form, no matter how painful a witch’s sharp recollection made things.
“What did they do after you told them?”
“They ran! That stupid rumor made them run. I ought to do a forgetting spell.”
Mother Khumalo touched her daughter’s face, seeing the roundness that would give way to angles and lines. “Beloved, they eventually remember. Memory makes them angry.” Unina hated the thought of moving again so soon. Their current home, a shack formerly used by lumberers because it was close to water, fit perfectly into the forest some distance from a village they’d found, and wasn’t so far away that she wouldn’t let her daughter perform errands unattended.
Unina—mother—Khumalo was only a lodger, so on principle she wouldn’t change the exterior of the home, but inside? Inside was wondrous. A witch never lived amongst things that didn’t make her happy.
“I want to make them forget,” said Amnandi.
“That’s not our way, is it?” said Mother.
“Then why would you want to do it?” Mother continued.
“It would make me feel good.”
“And that is, of course…”
“Insufficient,” Amnandi said. A flatter word had never been spoken. In a pocket of her brain one of the many shadow Amnandis she visited threw a head back to give a raspy moan, one stomped off, and another—the one Amnandi protected the most, the one who called a Blue world her home—felt entirely like tears at this moment, a young body and mind full of tears. The rest of Amnandi simply waited for what they knew the young witch would decide to do.
Amnandi shuffled to her chalk tablet and books.
“No, go and play, my love,” said Mother. “Amongst the veils. You’ve earned it.”
Mother gently slid the chalk tablet and books from Amnandi’s loose grip. “Go and play.”
The two witches traveled a lot because people believed extremely dubious things. Not a single child had ever died in a witch’s home. Those stories of ovens and eatings, pure idiocy. Ovens and transporting, yes; a witch used many things as portals.
In the town before, night-skinned Amnandi had led the worryingly pale sister and portly brother into a large, unlit oven that could easily fit three; what better way was there to play chase? Back in Afrela, witches’ children created structures all the time for their parents to imbue with transport magick, small bodies popping in and out of time and space on playful sunny days.
Amnandi and Gretel exited onto a field where the petals on chartreuse flowers tasted like taffy and the sky shone perfectly orange.
Gretel loved it. She’d come out first of the siblings, Hansel being delayed by a lost shoe.
“Hansel, come see!”
The colorfully adorned new girl ran in wild circles behind his sister.
He quickly doffed the remaining shoe, grabbed the edges of an opening at the rear of the oven that shouldn’t have existed, and popped out.
The moment his stockinged feet met the yellow grass—the moment the sweet air filled his nostrils—he grabbed for Gretel’s hand and cried. Like a cat, if cat’s didn’t like traveling through portals, except they did, so not like a cat, but unnervingly a cat’s yowl. Loud enough to attract Unina’s attention; Mother Khamalo had reached in and yanked him out so quickly his feet barely had time to leave an imprint on the ground. Gretel immediately followed, leaping into the low-hanging, slightly out-of-focus ovoid through which she could see the interior of the great oven and the walls of Amnandi’s home.
Hansel had paused his sudden wailing only long enough to yank himself from Mother’s light hold, then ran for the door. Gretel bolted after him.
Their parents came not long afterward with a fat constable in tow, who found two shoes in the oven. No sign of a portal or spell.
A witch never allowed her magicks to be seen by unappreciative eyes, but a child must be allowed to play, and thus the air in the home tasted like sugar. What did a constable and stricken parents know of the taste of magick? Very few in this cold, wet land knew. Khumalo missed the warmth of Afrela.
Even the floor had the stickiness of wet leaves that time. That, however, was the elves’ fault, always welcome in a witch’s home even though they left invisible trails everywhere they went. Mother Khumalo, taller than everyone in the room, was like a bar of iron: hard, uncomfortable, unyielding. The constable, making a blustery show, left just as quickly and fearfully, Amnandi’s would-be playmates’ parents on his heels.
That night, Unina shifted their meager belongings into a side dimension, abandoning the house the way she and Amnandi had found it. Although the traveling witches didn’t see a single townsperson as they left on mounts laden with immediacies, riding toward the deeper forest where no one would be brave enough to follow, Unina knew they were watched. They rode till nightingales chorused. At the call of wolves Mother set camp. Shortly afterward Amnandi smelled the burning timbers, the burnt-sugar of old forgotten spells, the musty but cozy dried-herb scents of mouse nests in the walls, the acrid shrieky stink of nestling starlings roasting alive as the enflamed thatched roof fell upon them.
That had been months ago.
Long enough for stories to get around, and this new home to be found.
Amnandi had found seven veils, the secretive portals within every home, in this new home. She was certain there were others, but Mother liked her to find them on her own. She hadn’t found a Dead veil yet. She’d found a Time veil, a Doppleganger veil, a Water veil, a Flight veil (which she avoided, as she didn’t like heights much), an Ancestor veil, a Regret veil, and a Newness veil–the latter being her favorite, where she played most often, as it was there that she got to comfort her shadow hosts (she called them The Host, for that is what it felt like they did when she visited): those separate selves most people didn’t have but which she had been born with, each separate self a colorfully-dressed child who looked exactly like her, some in blue wraps, some in red scarves, some with ornate headdresses or even more ornate hair, all shadows under their own suns.
Having been told to play, she played, sitting cross-legged and meditating, disappearing into the veils, finding another version of herself—the Blue world self—and hugging her deeply. Both girls dropped to the warm, blue ground, smoothed their robes, adjusted their scarves, and talked about things they shouldn’t have known about but, being a witch’s daughter, they knew; about adventures they’d gone on since the last they’d seen each other; about how annoying un-magical children could be. They even traded new spells. Things worked differently in the Blue World. Amnandi, in turn, exchanged a new secret about her, the Green World.
Yet for all this, as much as she liked herself, it would have been nice, she thought, to see, share and play now and then with happy, new faces.
Come morning, they rode under the brightest morning sky Eurola had to offer; for every bit of sun there were two of cloud. “I don’t even know how these stories get around, Unina.”
“Mind your step,” Mother Khumalo said to Amnandi’s pony, who was about to place a hoof directly into the obscured opening of a gopher hole. Natuun canted left, then continued on. “People,” Mother said. “People. They talk constantly talk even when not saying anything.”
“And we can’t use a spell?”
“Then why am I even learning to be a witch?”
Unina rode on as though the question hadn’t seen air, with the precise clip-clop of her horse the only useful indication of her mood. They were only and specifically going into town, Unina had said, “To be seen.” Amnandi didn’t want to see those idiot kids though. One had seemed very promising, and it was promise that hurt the most. She didn’t see many children with electric, poofy hair like hers in this place that wanted to be half rocky, half forested and ridiculously lacking in sun. But Mother’s intent was to travel the world and there was no getting around feeling alone. The girl from yesterday had a strange name. Rebecca, and her brother, Anselm.
“We could put on masks,” Amnandi said hopefully. “Masks aren’t magick, just tricks.” Mother kept their masks well-hidden in a shifted place. It was best to shift objects only, not people. People came back mean.
“Masks. This is precisely something I’d expect a ten-year-old to say.” Only Unina could phrase something in a way both so chiding and praising. “Never ever toy with such powers, Beloved. You’ve only seen me use a mask as a parlor trick. You haven’t seen me hunt or defend.”
“I’ll need to learn.”
“When you’re old enough. For now, your one face will do. When we enter, show me where you met those children.”
“I imagine they’ll be there again.”
“Does it help a young witch to question her mother so often?”
“Is this one of them?”
“No.” This was a “character-building exercise”. The sooner it was over, the sooner Amnandi could get back to the veils.
The village took no notice of them, but even Amnandi knew how much effort it took to not notice someone. Unina, wrapped in her most colorful scarves, radiated; Amnandi, in oranges and yellows, shone as a sunburst.
The blacksmith nodded. The constable too. Once. This village’s constable was pale, freckled, tall woman, taller than anyone else in the square. Intriguing red hair was braided into a single modest pigtail. She kept a truncheon—lacquer red—in hand at all times.
Unina Khumalo nodded at the constable. Amnandi whispered to her mother, “People call her the Red Constable. The kids said her stick is red because she killed a fae.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I told them it was paint.”
Unina laughed. She knew precisely where her daughter had met the other children because she could feel Amnandi’s happiness lingering in the streets, but she allowed her daughter to lead on. A granary sat in the village center; around that, several open areas for play, well away from wagon trails leading to and from the granary. Children of various ages played there, miniature versions of the working parents who exited and entered the huge storehouse.
Two children, so dusty their brown skin was gray, froze the moment Mother and Amnandi settled into view. The paler kids around them edged away. A nervous adult hustled inside the storehous. Mother Khumalo waited. Not long afterward, a man nearly as tall as the constable but whereas she was white he was coal black, exited, the furtive messenger right behind him.
He and Khumalo regarded one another a moment.
“I believe our children have been silly,” said Unina Khumalo from her horse. Beedma snorted and clicked its teeth in agreement, for the mare had never seen a child that didn’t dally in silliness.
The man grunted. “Was there magick?”
“This time, no. In the past, of course.”
“There is no ‘of course’ in my life,” he said. “Were they in danger?”
“No.” She motioned Amnandi’s pony forward. “This is my daughter. Do you feel danger from her?”
Another grunt. The gathered crowd took this as noncommittal.
“You’re the ones from the story?” said the man, his accent nearly the same as Unina’s.
“The story is silly.” Mother’s eyes never wavered from his.
“See that woman coming our way?” He nodded to indicate. Another tall woman, nearly identical to the constable save for slightly less height and a loose shock of brown hair, moved quickly toward the granary. “That’s their mother. She’ll not take it silly that at one point you had children in your oven.”
The only thing that kept the approaching woman from confronting Mother Khumalo were her children plastering themselves to her hips for comfort. The two mothers met eye to eye. An understanding was immediately made.
“Amnandi,” said Unina, turning her horse away. She and Amnandi left as slowly as they had come, their clops leaving tiny dust clouds whisked by the wind.
When sure they were out of earshot, Amnandi asked, “Why did you say yes, Unina?”
“Witches don’t lie. Nor do they vanish without cause.”
Amnandi tried to recall if her mother ever lied. She could have tranced to remember things before the age of three but trances generally left her too energized to sleep, and they were already down to the final candle before bed. From three on, however, there wasn’t an instance where she doubted her mother’s word or found trust misplaced. She remembered her unina telling a group around a fire back home, “I’d rather be interesting than lie,” which caused a lot of agreeable laughter.
Witches had a lot of rules, but it couldn’t be said that witches weren’t happy. She and her mother were very happy. Mother taught her which plants in which areas listened best to messages; Mother played with her in the portals from time to time. As a matter of fact, she had yet to catch her mother in a game of chase even though Amnandi was extremely fast and extremely clever about sending herself to other places.
They hadn’t been in Eurola long enough to call any of it home, but on the whole Amnandi found the land pleasant. Until recently. Fearful people made her uncomfortable, and when she was uncomfortable nothing would bring sleep. Fearful people burned things.
She rose from her pallet. Unina rested on the other side of the room, never a noise from her during the night any louder than a shadow’s, but alert immediately.
“Why do we travel?”
“The world is like an elder. It appreciates visitors.”
“Are we safe here?”
“You, my sweet, will never be in danger.”
“Thank you.” Amnandi returned to bed.
In the morning three knocks shook the frame of their door. They usually enjoyed meals with the door wide open, as Unina said breezes promoted digestion, but owing to the fog clinging to the surrounding grasses, she hadn’t opened the home yet. Fog here smelled like suffering and sadness.
The tall man from the village bowed to her, his children a few yards behind him, and rather than a grunt, he actually spoke. “They apologize for being disrespectful,” he said.
“Do they? From way over there?”
He waved them up, his only instructions for them a nod at the woman.
“Sorry,” said both.
“Will you apologize to my daughter?” Khumalo allowed Amnandi forward, stopping her at the threshold with a subtle hip placement.
The man’s children looked at Amnandi. Amnandi looked at them. All three felt foolish standing between the grown people, despite the two having run from Amnandi the day before after Amnandi’s delightful description of her home; feeling foolish, tension quickly left them. Mother Khumalo shifted her thin hip and Amnandi took off. The children cleaved the fog but stayed close to the ramshackle cabin. Mother Khumalo took her eyes off the children. “Children are mean in sprints. In the last town,” she said to their father in a voice too low for any other ears, “My home burned. I won’t tolerate such foolishness again. Do you understand me? Is their mother aware they’re here?”
“That’s my concern.” He touched his chest. “Jobam Imnahl.” He grunted in the direction of the children. “My boy and girl, Anselm and Rebecca.”
“I’ll be sure to pay her my respects,” said Khumalo.
“Did I interrupt your meal?”
“We’ve been up hours. We watch the sun rise.”
Jobam frowned, trying to recall if that was a tenet of any particular religion. “Out of faith?”
“Out of an appreciation for beauty.”
He scratched at his ragged beard, said “Beauty”, then grunted.
“You were an orator in a past life,” said Mother Khumalo.
He brightened a teeny bit. “I’ve been told! Oh…you are joking.”
“Fully jesting,” she said. “Your accent places you in the northern lands.”
“My oldest is ten. I’ve been here twelve years. From Abéhé.”
“I’m south of you.”
She acknowledged with a nod.
A long way from home, but one didn’t question a witch traveling alone with her daughter.
“I forgot myself yesterday,” he said, following with the honorific, “Unina.” He touched his forehead and opened his fingers to the air as apology. “My children speaking fairy tales is my fault as well. This land is full of terrible warnings to children. They use them as entertainments.”
“Learned foolishness is like sickness,” Unina said dourly.
Jobam grunted, but added a nod.
“I think we forget how much power we have,” she Khumalo. “Many are comfortable speaking stupid things into being.” She motioned him into the one-room home. She possessed a small table, two chairs, two sleeping mats, and a heavy cookpot dangling from the center of a tripod situated in a bed of river stones. No fire, yet the stones gave off heat. It felt good. He felt no need to speak of it.
“It’s been getting colder and colder here. Every year. People can’t help but think magick,” he said.
“And is magick an evil thing to them?”
“There’s a feeling. When you blow out a candle and you know something comes through the smoke? We’ve been living with that,” he said. “People are…” He almost said afraid. He corrected himself: “Speaking stupid things into being. Sicknesses and poor timing. A child disappeared in the woods, another escaped invisible voices, and a third was found retching by the river, crying that the air tasted too sweet. Within a year.”
“With what? The abundance of time I have? My endless energy and wealth? We’re poor here.”
“Poor and constantly working. This land hates our crops and often tells game to stay away from us for weeks at a time.”
Khumalo considered the man.
He grew uncomfortable.
“I have not,” he confessed, “used my magicks for a long time, Mother.”
“That changes today, Jobam-ri. I don’t intend to leave another place in my lifetime until I am ready. Do you understand?”
“Do you also understand that you have to make your village understand?”
He saw that. He nodded.
“I look forward to discussing pleasant things with you,” said Unina, concluding their business. “You have crops?”
“Ride past the granary and you’ll come to a meadow, then a trail. I made the trail.”
Khumalo nodded and grunted. She looked out the door. Amnandi ran circles, feints, and dodges around the other two, who tried valiantly to tag her but she was too fast, too watchful. They didn’t seem to mind—now that they knew they weren’t expected to be afraid—and hollered each time Amnandi eluded them.
“I don’t watch them play very often,” said Jobam as the sun’s rays suddenly flashed between a large break, working its magick on the last of the wispy fog.
Mother Khumalo walked out the door and sat on the grass.
Jobam did the same.
A few minutes later he called his children to go home.
After calling Amnandi in for lunch and a thousand-breath’s silence, Khumalo had Amnandi bring Beedma and Natuun. This trip to the village was identical to the prior day’s, except they didn’t stop at the granary. People paused, looked, and muttered the moment they came into view; activities that, Khumalo was certain, continued after the two disappeared into the meadow.
This was a prime spot. Full of unruly yet colorful weed patches, tall grasses that held the dew well, and an abundance of bees flitting from patch to patch now that the sun invited work. She would consider it an honor to speak to their respective queens. It was always good practice staying abreast of such alliances.
Jobam’s land, apart from birds declaring sexual intentions, held a certain quietude. He and his family were likely in the village proper, toiling at this or the other. There was always toil and more toil, whereas Unina, as a witch, knew the value of seeing, tasting, touching and, above all, listening. If she’d been alone she might have ridden the entire way with eyes closed, but Amnandi and her inattentive pony still had much to learn.
Jobam hadn’t mentioned the types of crops he grew, but judging from the increasing softness underhoof, they were likely tubers. The soil cried to be aired out. All of Eurola seemed to hold water as though it constantly cried.
The meadow gradually became orderly, with the trail bordered by small, ragged greens in rows like teeth ready to gobble the unwary. Khumalo chided herself. She was beginning to think like an Eurolan, ever suspicious and doom-riddled. They looked, she corrected, like teeth ready to share themselves as a meal and enjoy some conversation. She dismounted.
Ragged edges, holes, many of the plants obviously stunted underground. These plants spoke a litany of malfeasances: inadequate aeration, sun deficiency, too few nutrients. For a place that didn’t value their witches, they certainly didn’t compensate with practical knowledge. She knelt with her face as close to the ground as possible and lifted a leaf to peer under it.
A lingering guest.
She looked upward at Amnandi. “What do you think the surrounding trees think of this plot?”
“I don’t think they like it very much.”
“Would you like to know why?” She motioned Amnandi to the ground, raising the leaf until its underside was fully exposed.
A slug wordlessly but forcefully demanded to be left alone with every fiber of its being.
“Undereaters!” said Amnandi.
Amnandi loved slugs and snails. They not only looked like ancients but moved like them.
“We’ll ride a bit more, then prepare a cure.” Unina stood, carefully rearranging her multi-colored scarves.
They found Jobam leaving the granary with huge sacks on a shoulder apiece, which he expertly flipped onto a wagon bed.
“Are you a drinking man?” asked Khumalo.
He frowned and grunted. His wife came out of the granary, a single sack over a shoulder, but deposited with the same expert shrug.
“Madam,” said Unina.
“Madam,” said Jobam’s wife.
“You’ve spoken?” Khumalo inquired with a nod toward Jobam.
“We have,” said the sweaty woman.
“Good.” To Jobam: “The fermented water, what do they call it, beer?”
“I don’t drink it,” he said. “If I have to get used to the taste of something, I don’t want it.”
“Where can I get beer here?” asked Khumalo.
“Marella has barrels of it.”
“May the children show me?”
Jobam’s wife called out “Rebecca, Anselm!” and in clear mother magick, the children appeared from whatever they were doing which involved dirt—as evidenced by the smudges on their faces and clothing—and stood patiently as though they’d always been there. “Take madam to Marella.”
“Would you care to ride or walk,” Unina asked the two. The girl ran to stand beside Khumalo’s horse. The boy hopped on behind Amnandi.
“It’s not far,” said Jobam. “She stays downwind.”
“I’ll have them back smiling and wise,” said Khumalo.
“I’ll accept them just a bit more sane than they usually let on,” said Jobam’s wife, and returned to her tasks inside the granary.
That night, Amnandi and Unina returned to Jobam’s plots.
The next morning Khumalo journeyed alone, allowing her sleeping, sweet daughter to rest. She knocked on Jobam’s door. When he opened it, he drew swirls of fog inward around the majestic woman. She saw by his eyes he thought this apt.
“Mother,” he said.
“Walk with me a moment.”
He stepped outside. Her horse, untied, searched the ground for edible bits. “Shouldn’t you—” Jobam started. An unhitched horse was essentially a gift for someone else.
“No.” As they walked, Khumalo explained her findings. He nodded at the obvious as though being told great secrets. “You aren’t originally a farmer are you, Jobam?”
Khumalo knelt to retrieve a bowl from beneath a large leaf. She presented it for his hesitant perusal.
“You have a slug infestation. Were you not aware?”
Jobam studied the small bloated bodies for movement. He shrugged. “I didn’t think they could be enough to be damaging.”
“Everything terrible starts small, my friend.”
He stood a bit more upright at hearing “friend” but said nothing. Even almost smiled. She sat the bowl down and repeated the presentation with another.
“Slugs like beer,” Jobam observed.
“Slugs like beer,” Unina confirmed. “No magick needed. What did you do back home?”
He smiled sadly, embarrassed at the distance between Jobam-home and the Jobam who had no clue about the bugs of his small farm. “I studied the ancient mathematics, and ship design.”
“Fish the slugs out and leave the beer for several days.”
“What about the night life?”
“A drunken rabbit might not be a bad thing.” Unina brushed her hands on her hips and headed back the way she’d come. Jobam followed.
“The plot is mainly for us,” he said. “I designed the windmills here.”
“You build and fix,” she said.
“Not a lot of fixing,” he said. “I build to last.”
She stopped to scan the gray surroundings. “Something isn’t right here.”
He nodded, waiting.
“And you’ve never once thought to use your powers?” asked Khumalo.
“My gifts…aren’t welcome here.”
She raised a brow. “I’ve seen evidence of this place’s magick; your own, I feel it all over you.”
“I remember the veils.”
“You’ve not traveled a long time.”
“My children are happy. That’s enough for me. Magick here is…odd. Let us say mine is not as welcome.”
“Does that matter to you?”
“My children matter. My wife matters.”
“You two will grow old together.”
“I haven’t seen your future, silly man. I’ve seen your smiles.”
Jobam looked away.
“It’s a good man who’s unaware how much he shows his love,” she said. “Never be ashamed of that.”
“You’re welcome to stay on my property if you’d like.”
Khumalo touched a hand to her forehead then released the hand to the air. “Should there be an unpleasant cause to leave this place, there will certainly be no peace anywhere else here.”
Jobam grunted. “I understood your threat from before.”
“Ah, no threat. Warning this time. There’s clearly something wrong here. Magick feeds harmful stories.” She made a dour face. “I may have to find the reason for that.”
“You sound like you don’t want to.”
“Be assured, I have better things to do.”
When he wasn’t looking at his feet he snuck glances at her. High cheekbones, sharp chin, laugh lines around her eyes. Her height, from head to toe, was covered in multi-colored, constantly undulating scarves and wraps. Her eyes saw more than they needed to. No surprise that he preferred not to meet them. Eyes that considered the world her home, and by “home” he was sure she would mean the universe.
But this was not Afrela.
The instant he said “Tread carefully” he regretted it. There were things never to be said to a person of her station. “By which I mean—”
“You mean to explain?” A single incredulous brow arced above the two frown lines between her eyes.
They strolled back to the house.
She patted the strong neck of her mare. With a quick bustle of swirls she was astride the horse. “Your children may visit. There will be no magick.”
Khumalo rode off.
During the third week, in the middle of the night, after the loudest crack of thunder Amnandi had ever heard, followed by torrential rain, Unina Khumalo issued a sharp gasp in her sleep.
Amnandi sat bolt upright.
Unina was still unconscious and breathing quickly. Not wildly, Amnandi noted immediately, but quick and controlled.
Lightning flared through the lattices of the home. Amnandi barely noticed.
Her mother groaned.
Amnandi scrabbled over. The elder Khumalo was rigid, composed, but clearly engaged in battle.
Rain leaked through several spots. Amnandi ignored it.
She was afraid. She sat vigil over her mother until, having decided both her and her mother’s jitters were the results of wind, rain, and unnecessary upheavals, her chin met her chest.
“There are three children ill at the same time,” said Jobam. He had ventured to Mother Khumalo’s home again. Alone.
“Children share illnesses.”
Jobam shook his head emphatically. “Not this.”
“Save your horse the exertion of delivering such news to me.”
He hung his head, speaking from his toes. “This is the village’s mind.”
“Do you think I’m tied to this foolishness?”
“Good day, Jobam. Tend to your children.” She looked over his shoulder at Amnandi drawing circles in the grass with a stick. “I’ll tend to mine.”
A fog crept upon the sickest child, waiting days until the child fell so ill there was no defense against it. No spark whatsoever to fight against the claiming of light. Just hunger.
The next morning, wailing.
Everyone knew that wailing, and steeled themselves to face the bereaved.
This suffering traveled all the way to Khumalo, who spoke to the hawks and fawns to keep watch. Lessons, to Amnandi’s dismay yet delight, doubled for two days.
On the third day a plume of funereal smoke snaked its way above the treetops. Throughout the day that smoke became the clouds that got fat, dark, and mean, goading the winds to flagellate themselves. By nightfall it rained so hard Amnandi did an encouraging spell to expand the wood to seal leaks and keep the shack holding strong. She returned to her mother’s side, who again neither awakened nor stopped groaning in her sleep. She vowed then and there to watch over her mother forever.
When Khumalo awoke in the morning to soft rumbles in the sky and the heavy feeling of another gray dawn, her daughter snored beside her.
As Khumalo rolled off the mat to prepare the morning meal, Amnandi stirred but didn’t wake. Khumalo noted with pride that where she went, Amnandi’s body shifted on the mat to follow.
With the fire under the pot snapping and the dampness chased from the immediate air, she kissed Amnandi awake inside the youngster’s dreaming forehead.
The little one rolled out, rubbed her eyes, and shuffled to gather bowls and bread. She handed the bowls to her mother, who ladled hot, spicy soup.
Both gathered their robes between their legs and sat, preferring the floor to the chairs, to eat.
“Unina…are you dying?”
Khumalo smiled into her steaming bowl. “What makes you ask such?”
“The dreaming has been difficult for you for several nights.”
“See, you don’t remember.”
“How many nights?”
“One following the other?”
“No. And you didn’t feel the rain last night. I had to cast a spell.”
“Really?” Unina said again. “I don’t feel the spell.” She set her bowl in the space between her crossed legs. She looked at Amnandi, whose face was full of expectancy and concern. “Thank you. No, sweet. There are many things to account for a sleepless night, even from me.”
“I wanted to get the worst of them out of my way.”
“Should I watch over you while in the breaths?”
Khumalo returned to her soup. “That would be wise and appreciated.”
Khumalo felt the presence of another during the thousand-breaths, shocked that she hadn’t felt it before. Something lost, something malignant. A terrible thing. A nightmare without purpose. It was never in one place, never one specific thing, never whole. Made of gaps, and the only time she was fully aware of it was when she tripped into its holes.
By the time she roused she knew why she’d slept fitfully. The thing cried loudly.
She accepted a cup from Amnandi. She sipped and allowed the lukewarm water to return sensation to her body. “No chores or exercises this morning,” she said. “Bring the horses. You ride with me.”
They rode in their night robes, each hoof beat a mud splash, such that by the time they reached Jobam’s, dried, gray blotches dotted their faces, hands, and clothing. Jobam and his wife labored outside their cottage, Jobam at the base with a bucket of tar, Ingrid on the roof with same. Ingrid came down the ladder at their gallop.
Khumalo reined to a trot and allowed the horse to circle the home once. “Your children?” she asked. Coldly, concisely, powerfully.
“Mud stomping,” said Ingrid. She flicked her head over her shoulder. “That way.”
Khumalo told Amnandi to join the children.
Amnandi rode off but not happily. Nor quickly. She strained her hearing to catch bits of the conversation she was being sent away from but quickly gave up. Her mother would tell her when she needed to be told. Her pony had learned to mind its way much better, so finding the kids on this uneven, wet ground proved easy. Rebecca and Anselm looked like bogs with legs.
They ceased stomping when she drew up. “Aren’t you too old for this?” Amnandi said from her mount.
Anselm was tempted to fling mud. He saw the look on Amnandi’s face. He thought better.
“Aren’t there chores? Unina would be appalled at your indolence.”
“What?” said Rebecca.
“Hm? Unina? Unina means mother,” said Amnandi.
“How many languages do you speak?”
“This one,” said Rebecca.
“Oh.” Amnandi changed tact. “Did the rain scare you?” She knew they would know exactly what she meant.
“A little,” said Anselm.
“Does that happen a lot?”
“Sometimes,” said Anselm.
“Only this year,” said Rebecca, the elder and font of knowledge.
Amnandi dismounted. Mud squicked her leather footwear a half inch into the saturated ground. She grit her teeth and ignored it. It was bad enough that she looked almost as messy as them minus any boon of foolishness. She gazed intently at each child. Squinting, she asked, “What’s happened here that you were afraid of my mother?”
“We weren’t afraid of—” said Anselm.
“You’re old enough to not be afraid of rumors and stories,” said Amnandi. “But you were. You hurt my feelings. Which means you owe me.”
“Kids die here,” said Rebecca.
“That usually means an elder,” said Amnandi.
Rebecca shook her head. “Not this.”
“So you’re afraid of witches.”
“It’s a witch doing it,” said Rebecca.
“Kids die here,” said Anselm. “It’s happening all around. Mama says it comes during the night.”
“When we sleep,” said Rebecca. “We hear the stories. We heard about the witch with the oven. They said the house was sweet and they were lured by a child. A stranger. You’re strange.”
“There’s nothing mysterious about dreaming or anything having to do with sleep,” said Amnandi with irritation. “Falling asleep is just fainting very slowly anyway. And I only told you about the sugar because that’s all you eat here, sugared, candied things! I only wanted to play. I wanted to…” She fell silent.
The other kids respected her by doing the same.
“Do you ever see the small people?” asked Amnandi.
“We call them fae,” said Rebecca.
“Or fairy,” said Anselm. “I’ve never seen them but I know they’re there. They move my shoes.”
“Where do you come from?” asked Rebecca.
“The same as your father,” said Amnandi.
“Father’s from here,” said Rebecca.
It would have been rude to say “You don’t know your family history”—a witch was never rude.
“Unina—my mother—will fix this,” said Amnandi.
Anselm leaned in to ask “Why does the air in your house taste like sugar?” just as Unina Khumalo’s voice traveled to them without being raised.
“Yes, Unina,” said Amnandi, and hopped atop her mount. “You can ride with me,” she told the muddied.
“It’s only a pony,” said Anselm.
“A very strong pony,” said Amnandi. “You can help your abazali with your home.”
“Stop speaking two languages,” said Rebecca.
“Your parents,” said Amnandi.
“Mama tells us this is the best way for us to help,” said Anselm.
“Mama is wrong,” said Amnandi.
Their eyes shot wide.
“See?” said Anselm. “You’re strange.”
“Ride or stay?” said the strange girl with the colorful scarves.
“We’ll stay,” said Rebecca.
Amnandi patted Natuun. They rode.
Mother and child traveled at a leisurely pace through the village. Khumalo carried heavy thoughts with an even heavier silence. Amnandi kept watch on her mother’s random frowns and squints.
This was the first Amnandi had the freedom to observe the village and its people. A man from Chin had set up shop; she knew it was Chin by the writing that ran the length of a cloth banner across a trough, which reminded her to resume her practice at writing Chin. There weren’t a lot of people active this early. The few out moved slowly.
The Red Constable whispered to the man from Chin: “There she is.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Unina, nodding across the distance at the man from Chin without interrupting her horse’s walk. “I look forward to meeting a fellow traveler.”
A woman, flush with anger, shouted “Witch!”
“Yes?” Unina responded, as though called by name.
The constable trotted to the woman and shushed her, draping an arm around her shoulder and giving it a squeeze.
Khumalo sighed, said, “A moment, please” to her horse, and hopped down, her long legs quickly closing the distance to the accuser. She glared as hard as she could in Khumalo’s face.
“Are the witches here very harmful?” Unina asked the angrier of the two, a woman who, if not for telltale signs of constant rage, might have appeared her age instead of twice it. Before the woman could speak, Unina took her hand in both her own and heaved a deep breath, eyes locked with the woman’s through the exhalation. The woman cried profusely yet silently via her eyes alone, her body surprisingly calm in the connection.
The Red Constable reached in and led her away. Khumalo returned to her horse. She mounted and rode. Her daughter followed.
When they were out of earshot, Mother Khumalo said, “Her child was eaten.”
“Not literally. From the inside. Hollowed. I could feel the emptiness of it.” She allowed Amnandi to think on that.
There would be, Khumalo decided, extra lessons that afternoon.
And many meditations.
“You didn’t tell me how one of the children was found,” Khumalo accused Jobam that evening. She’d ridden to his home under cover of night, and didn’t care that she knocked uninvited. “And you said there were three. There were four children. You know of the fourth. This place,” Unina Khumalo said, “this place is…odd. You live with evil—you know its name—yet are only brave toward falsehoods.”
Jobam quickly grabbed blankets and moved the sacred witch to the privacy of a nearby tree.
To an untrained eye Jobam’s dark skin blended with the trunk he rested against. To hers, the life coming out of him made him clear as day even as the moon fought to make its way through clouds.
“When I first arrived here,” he said, “there were stories of a child. Port, town, village, hamlet, the same story. A child who was much more than child, given to ancient rages. They called her a changeling.”
“And you, fresh from home and full of magicks?”
“I set out to find her. I had nothing else. My name meant nothing.”
“Can I tell you something, Jobam? I get no pleasure from rescuing people, the living or the dead. I prefer to be home with my daughter now, reading, breathing, or making soup. What did you do?”
“She was already ensorcelled!” he flared. “I shifted her.”
“Gah!” Khumalo turned away and paced.
“They would have killed her, madam. When I found her she attacked me. I will not kill. This happened over a month’s journey from here!”
“Did you think nothing of the veils!”
“Not until you. The child’s soul was tethered to the Earth by the thinnest thread. I thought that at least she would die in peace,” he said. “And I thought nothing more of her.”
“And that,” Khumalo said, “is why this place knows nothing but fear.” She sighed. “You now have a son and daughter.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Everything I am I give to them. The lost girl was far away and barely a memory.”
“Attracted to the magicks,” said Khumalo. “A bee to sugar. You have endangered my daughter by shielding yourself and not speaking truly! Gah! What I thought was shame and pride preventing my seeing you was guilt. Useless, inane guilt.”
“That was over ten years ago!”
“You think time matters to the forgotten?”
“You think she uses the veils to play?” he asked.
“It doesn’t play, it feeds. Feeding on what feels most like itself.” Khumalo sighed deeply. “It knows to close me off in the dreaming. Magick and fools account for too much heartache here.”
“I tried to be good.”
“Now try to be smart, for I must lie to my daughter and will need counsel on that act.”
Amnandi, when Khumalo returned home, was nowhere seen. Khumalo closed her eyes and felt the sweetness of the air. The veils. She sat cross-legged, allowing the smallest pride to cross her lips briefly, and waited.
It didn’t take long. Amnandi had spent the time speaking with her other selves while Khumalo was away. When she reappeared she hugged her mother from behind, and came around to sit in front of her.
“You smell like flowers,” said Khumalo, eyes still closed.
“I was in the Blue World. The Host found a new way to make oil from vine leaves.”
Khumalo opened her eyes to the wondrous sight of her daughter.
“Unina…the rains have only happened like that this year.”
“And three children disappeared this same year,” said Khumalo.
“Do you think spirits?’
“I think spirits.”
“Are we in danger?”
“Are we hunting them?”
When Amnandi later visited her other selves again before bed she told them of this new adventure, feeling the excitement grow in each until the nervousness was like lightning to release from her hand. Part of her deep consciousness noted, however, that Unina stayed vigil over this time spent in the veils, which was a new thing.
There were times, as a witch, one did not ask but evolved and adapted. Amnandi took this as such.
In the morning, Unina reached into the shifted place and brought out two masks. The hyena and the hare.
Khumalo looked upward into the face of the taller Red Constable; the Red Constable looked down. “I am going to do something today,” said Khumalo, “that will endanger. You can’t prevent it. Keep the adults out of my way, and keep the children near Amnandi.”
“Two wagons departed at first light taking the children to Lethern,” said the Red Constable. “Fire festival. Only a few adults and small ones still here. My sister respects you.”
“I get things done.”
“There won’t be any need to fear me if this turns out properly.”
“You leaving anyway?”
“At a point, yes.”
They set to work.
In the middle of the village, in front of the granary, Khumalo counted breaths. Not ordinary breaths. Beacon breaths. Beacons through the veils. Dusk had settled. The clouds, for a change, allowed a few orange smudges of late afternoon sun to paint the ground and structures. She had Amnandi spend the day with the remaining children, a total of six with various illnesses, punishments, or sour demeanors keeping them from seeing a sky full of lanterns set ablaze, her only instruction to her daughter that she tell them she, Amnandi, did magick.
The conversation that Amnandi kept returning to played out.
“You can’t do magic. Teach us magic. I want to do magic.”
“You can’t just do magick, you have to understand a thing to do magick. It is learning, child,” she said, perfectly and sincerely mimicking Unina. “Learn to be part of the cause and the effect.” And with the veil mask of the hare, she showed them how she could make a portal by binding space to her thoughts: she walked through a barn doorway and disappeared.
She reappeared as though simply leaving the barn. For a moment the group stared frozen. The smallest child, a five-year-old with a cough, whooped a second later and rushed forward as next in line for the trick. The other five swarmed.
“Form a line,” Amnandi ordered.
In her meditative state, Khumalo permitted a fluttering sensation of readiness to travel the thread to her daughter, who received it only as a flash of self awareness.
Khumalo returned to being energy, light, and comfort: lures to sickened souls. She flooded the area immediately around her with unseen acts of magick: trampled grasses renewing, weeds flowering, the damp ground beneath her warming to welcome the activity of a hundred different insects responding to the sugary electricity in the air.
She felt the terrified, lost thing coming.
Hunger. Thirst. Fear. Anger and consuming loneliness tied to the absolute thrill of hatred. The child was no longer a child, it was simply need. It rose from the grass, invisible at first, then murmurings of heat, then wisps; it wafted from the trees, becoming thicker, a thin fog that moved as one.
It thought to rush her.
Khumalo donned her mask and became the hyena in the blink of an eye.
The fog wrapped her.
It also tasted the multiplied sweetness of the children.
Khumalo blasted intention to her daughter in the split-second before the mask assumed the bulk of her soul. Flee!
The wraith of intent, like smoke blown yet recoiled, tried to be surreptitious. It tried to be ground-hugging fog from the day’s end rising toward the children. It hoped to be a thing unnoticed.
A witch’s daughter was not one to miss things.
“Follow me!” Amnandi shouted, panic in her voice both real and a prod to the children.
Caught off-guard, they hesitated, and because they were afraid, they laughed, first one, then all. The oldest pointed to the wooden, jagged mask, saying, “Magic rabbit girl.”
“Follow me or you die!” Amnandi yelled. She felt every veil she’d visited growing colder, growing dark. Becoming hungry.
Shreds of fog charged.
The children ran, Amnandi in the lead.
She cast magick ahead of her as they bolted into the waiting granary door and popped out running along an upper platform which led to a chute. Amnandi threw herself at the chute, knowing in her mind where she wanted to be from remembrances of the village square. They popped out between the porch columns of the constabulary and made for one of several homes left open. The Shreds were quick; she quicker. Anything the children fit through became portals. There was no time to think, only to keep moving and keep the gray mists confused. Amnandi raced the group from doorway to oven to cabinet to closet, the Shreds—bold and even more aggravated now—never far off but never close enough. Amnandi never looked back. She didn’t slow for a second, keeping everyone one twist or leap ahead of danger.
She flashed out of a home and willed the structure to seal itself the moment the last child dashed past her, then she whirled to create another opening, this one beneath the high wheels of a granary wagon. Before charging through she caught a glimpse of her mother surrounded by fog and dancing so fast the flashes of her scarves became knives.
The spirit sought ways in. Khumalo’s magicks of mind and body prevented it. She didn’t think of it as a child because it was no longer a child, only hunger, emotion and instinct. An elemental wind. But the winds didn’t direct a witch; she directed them, arms like windmill blades, scarves as funnels, breaks, and diverters. The mask heightened the power in her hands so much they became claws, ripping pieces of the teeth-like fog away, the pieces dissipating, until all that was left on that soggy square in Eurola was a sense of crying, a sense of pain so extreme that without the hyena mask she might have been broken by it. Might have faltered. To falter was to give this sickness strength.
The spirit didn’t attempt to flee.
Khumalo’s face beneath the mask changed. Reality cracked, muscles shifted, until had the mask fallen off no one would have noticed the difference.
She ripped the last of this personal plague to a tattered wisp, feeling from the enveloping presence a sense of loss.
A sense of rest.
Hyenas, being efficient, didn’t rest. They weren’t merely scavengers. In the absence of fallen spoils, they hunted.
The hare across the way was quick, agile, and in the open.
Amnandi kept the children moving unpredictably, effectively trapping the Shreds within a vortex of indecision. She saw her mother running toward her, and with one last cast of her tired arms drew a portal that led through the Blue World and back to the Green, only this time she exited without the children. She sensed the Shreds were too weakened to enter the veils.
She dashed forward to tire them further.
Her mother leaped over her.
The hare sped away as a hyena made of scarves and motion hacked at the trapped shreds which put up as much fight as a whisper to a storm.
Until there was nothing left.
Except the hare and the hyena.
The hare’s chest rose and fell tightly. The hare fled.
“Stop!” Khumalo commanded, blasting comfort from her heart.
Amnandi stopped. She looked left, right, crouched on the balls of her feet, and waited.
Khumalo didn’t remove the hyena. If her daughter could come to her in this form, her strength of self and mind would be proven.
Khumalo dropped to her knees and opened her arms.
The hare bolted into a veil. It returned with six tired, crying children.
Amnandi removed the small mask, her eyes and face as wet and streaked as the rest. She looked only vaguely hare-like, and that only for a moment.
Khumalo removed her larger mask. Amnandi bathed in the sight of her mother’s face, the wise eyes full of concern, the lips pinched at wanting to call to her. Her mother set the mask at her knees and opened her arms again. Amnandi closed the distance, painfully, until she was in them.
Parents burst from their locked homes and ran for their children. Khumalo watched until each child was accounted for, then she heaved a breath, stood shakily, and placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder to lead her away, free hands dangling the masks at their sides. The constable could handle things for the moment. The horse and pony trotted up as if they’d been watching for this moment. Khumalo smiled at them and continued walking, her arm around her daughter.
“I don’t want to leave here again, Unina,” said Amnandi, bringing fresh tears.
“We won’t leave until you are ready to.”
Midway to their home, Beedma neighed and Natuun nuzzled Amnandi’s neck. “Is that so?” Khumalo said, giving a small, tired laugh. “They’re saying that if we don’t want to ride them, they should ride us.”
When they were almost home—both witches calm and almost sleepy—they dismounted at a burbling stream and bathed, only partly drying off by rubbing themselves down with handfuls of the lush delicious grass to the sound of happily chomping jaws.
At home Khumalo filled the essence of the home with as much calming magick as she could while they put on fresh scarves and robes. She lit no fire save the cooking fire, allowing the night to enter undisturbed. They ate a meal of stew, bread, and porridge, then sat on Khumalo’s mat, Amnandi half in her lap.
“I told them to run and they stood there, Unina. So foolish!” A powerful yawn rippled her small body, top to toe. “Will you love me when I’m foolish?”
Amnandi snuggled deeper. “That won’t be for a long time.”
Mother Khumalo willed warmth and comfort through her skin. She kissed the bit of Amnandi’s cooled forehead left uncovered. This little body had managed to retain the scent of flowers, the taste of sugar, but had grown.
“I hope never, my child,” said Khumalo, her lips and breath warm against the skin to address the soul through the bone. “Not till the last star grows cold and old and reaches, my sweet, for its blanket.”
Amnandi’s body finally relaxed, her breathing deepened, and she—young witch and keeper of the hare, daughter of Ayanda Khumalo—fell very deeply asleep.
About the Author
ZZ Claybourne is the author of 3 novels and the acclaimed short story collection Historical Inaccuracies. His essays on sci fi, fandom, and creativity have appeared in Apex, Strange Horizons, and other genre venues. He is currently at work on his 4th novel. Find him on the web at writeonrighton.com.